SECRET SOLDIERS at TOY makes a fascinating chapter in American history come alive on stage 

THE BASICS:  SECRET SOLDIERS: HEROINES IN DISGUISE, by Wendy Lement, directed by Megan Callahan, presented by Theatre of Youth (TOY) March 4 – 26, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 (no performance March 19), 203 Allen Street, Buffalo, NY 14201 716.884.4400  Recommended for Ages 8+ 

RUNTIME: 70 minutes without intermission 

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  This historically informed play opens our eyes to the secret history of women who fought as men in the American Civil War.  Several stories are uncovered in an interlocking set of true tales of battlefront women, with a focus on soldier Private Lyons Wakeman (born Sarah Wakeman of New York State) whose letters were discovered by her nephew in an attic years after her death.  As her family is about to lose the farm, literally, Sarah hears about the Army’s $152 enlistment bonus, serious money in an era where a week’s labor might earn between $1 (for cleaning houses) and $4 (as a laborer on a cargo barge).

In this production, the audience is enlisted to be medical officers who will decide the fate of Lyons Wakeman: whether the medical record will reflect her birth gender (thus denying her a pension), or whether the medical officers will keep history hidden (thus letting Wakeman receive all the benefits of military service). This play also touches on the true stories of other women who fought in the Civil War as men.  One published count indicates that there were perhaps 400, but the director, in her notes, is sure that it must have been in the thousands, women who for many reasons including money, patriotism, opportunity, and adventure, joined the ranks.  

Photo Credit: Nick Stroczkowski

The play also looks at race and slavery, black soldiers, and freedmen joining the army.  We even get a brief encounter with Harriet Tubman of the Underground Railroad as well as with Loreta Janeta Velazquez who fought as a man on the Confederate side.  To use a current buzzword, there is a rich “intersectionality” of many forces in this play, issues still driving us, 160 years later.

The playbill is excellent and chock full of interesting information as is the website’s Study Guide, which I highly recommend reading BEFORE you go (I wish that I had).

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  I saw this on a Tuesday morning when a school group had canceled, but TOY’s Executive Director Tracy Snyder graciously invited a small group of about eight to enjoy the production which was presented by all of the understudies.  Since every one of the eight “tracks” (most of them have actors taking on multiple roles) is covered by an understudy, it was a full production, and I can report that all did a marvelous job.

Playwright Wendy Lement conceived SECRET SOLDIERS without props, but having come to the opening shows, is said to have been thrilled by the fully staged presentation, with topnotch rustic scenery by Donnie Woodard, many, many props by Diane Almeter Jones, and period costumes by Jenna Damberger.  (To quote my wife: “If women had to dress in those hoop skirts no wonder Sarah wanted to wear pants!”)

But wait, there’s more.  The lighting by Brian Cavanagh was appropriately dim for this pre-electric age as we saw many lanterns on stage, lighting which was matched by Composer/Sound Designer Brian Wantuch who provided just the right touch of old-time music, making this play almost cinematic.  And let’s not forget Stage Manager Brittany Wysocki, worrying about 8 actors, dozens of props, and even more sound and lighting cues.

The accents were simply wonderful due to topnotch preparation by the director Meghan Callahan, who has done dialect coaching on just about every stage in Western New York (and is one of the founding faculty at D’Youville University’s new MFA in Acting).  

Reading all of the thumbnail cast bios I was more than impressed by the level of talent and experience on the TOY stage.  One hates to single out just a few actors because, first, I only saw one cast of 8 and there are 8 other actors I never got to see.  However, I was particularly impressed by Kaylie Horowitz who played Sarah, a.k.a. Lyon Wakeman as well as by Clara Tan who played Dr. William Hire, the doctor who presents to the audience, with all the confidence of a military medical person, the moral dilemma which must be solved.  (Reading Tan’s bio in the program I see that she has sung opera, been a truck driver, and was at one time a theatre critic!  What can I say? There’s no substitute for lived experience.)

This is a play you’ve never seen before regarding a story you probably never heard of before.  If it seems that U.S. history is only about Presidents and generals, this will show you that our national chronicle is much more varied and nuanced.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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